Life gets messy with hired help
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, February 4, 2011
Thanks to delirious scenarios, bloody payoffs and the occasional devouring of a live octopus, such Korean revenge fantasies as "Oldboy'' have earned an international cult following. Cooler and cleaner than such movies, "The Housemaid" may seem to come from a different place altogether. But this, too, is a Korean revenge parable, and it builds to a startling outcome.
"The Housemaid" is billed as writer-director Im Sang-soo's remake of a 1960 Korean classic of the same name. But while Im retains elements from the earlier movie's story, he flips the premise. The original maid was a predator; this one is prey.
The change is foreshadowed in the movie's prologue, in which an anonymous woman commits suicide by jumping from a building and plunging into a busy night market. One of the observers is naive Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn), who works in a nearby restaurant.
Soon after, Eun-yi is interviewed by venerable Mrs. Cho (Youn Yuh-jung), longtime housekeeper for a wealthy, Westernized family. The younger woman accepts a job caring for pampered Hae-ra (Seo Woo) and her daughter, Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon), who looks to be about 8. There's more responsibility just weeks away: Hae-ra is exceedingly pregnant with twins.
The man of the house, baby-faced plutocrat Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), is rarely at home. But when he's there, he gets what he wants: imported red wine, time to practice Beethoven piano sonatas and lots of sex. One night after Hae-ra fails to oblige, Hoon calls on Eun-yi.
The new maid doesn't resist, but then how could she? Not only is Eun-yi a poor woman with no prospects, but her new home is a gleaming, luxurious dream world. "The Housemaid" is visually lush and photographed with an intoxicating grandeur that recalls last year's "I Am Love." Perhaps Eun-yi is genuinely attracted to Hoon or unable to resist such a confident, skilled man. Or maybe she just doesn't accept her new life as entirely real.
It becomes real abruptly, when Mrs. Cho realizes that Eun-yi is pregnant, and Hae-ra's conniving mother (Park Ji-young) enters to protect her daughter's status. Nami and Mrs. Cho watch with interest, and some sympathy. Only Hoon is slow to understand what's happening. Maybe he never entirely does, even after the exiled maid returns to punish the family with a horrific spectacle.
Korea today is much wealthier than in 1960, and the film takes a few shots at the imperious rich. But the director doesn't commit to social drama - or any other genre. Although more explicit about certain things (sex, notably) than films made 50 years ago, "The Housemaid" still has a zipped-up quality. It intentionally leaves some questions unanswered and conjures a mood that's quietly bizarre. In this household, just about anything - even the absurdist epilogue - makes a certain kind of odd, live-octopus-eating sense.
Contains violence, partial nudity and sexual situations.